DN Staff

May 15, 2000

6 Min Read
Online engineering collaboration

Collaboration on a project, when all parties are in-house, has been going on for a long while. Now, the Internet makes it possible for engineers to collaborate on a project from separate locations. In fact, completely virtual corporations are starting up all over the world.

The only drawback in providing real-time engineer-to-engineer collaboration is in present day data transfer speeds. Server-resident CAD programs meet with the greatest challenge where transfer speed is concerned. These systems require that the designer perform all operations online and through the variable speed of the company's particular Internet connection. Transfer speeds must be maintained at a very high rate in order for the collaboration to occur anywhere near real-time.

Through the use of local CAD software, Internet collaboration need only transfer those operations that have been completed, rather than the hand- shaking that goes on to manipulate a server-resident package. In this way, implementation speeds are much faster. Even this method can have its challenges. Often, special software add-ons have been created to facilitate online transfer of data through a variety of different hand-shaking schemes.

One company, Alibre, provides a web-based architecture with full 3D parametric, feature-based, associative solid modeling capabilities to the engineer. Consultant of Interactive Computer Engineering Howard Crabb says, "Alibre is one company that has built its software around the Internet from the ground up."

According to Hyrum Anderson, mechanical engineer at Synthesis Engineering Services, "The software is very easy to learn and offers some powerful functionality. The Alibre software particularly handles parts and assembling very well."

An Alibre spokesperson points out that key features of the software include the company's Real-Time Team Modeling, load-balanced distributed processing, and secure product data repository, sharing, and management capabilities. Hyrum says that Synthesis Engineering provides design tooling, as well as individual parts for automation equipment. "We've been evaluating Alibre's design tools for some time now. So far, we're really impressed."

When asked what the drawbacks were, Hyrum admitted, "Fitting into the procedures and policies to get into a customer's database is still difficult and needs several layers of approval." He says, "In that sense, little has changed from the old way of designing for a customer." Alibre uses a "baton" icon, which is passed on-screen from engineer to engineer allowing easy collaboration without the possibility of crashing into one another.

For companies not ready for full-blown online collaboration, CoCreate, offers a scalable system in which to build towards online collaboration. The company provides FirstSpace as a free download used for viewing purposes only. This software allows one engineer to send a drawing to another engineer who can then rotate the drawing and perform measurements without downloading a complete CAD drawing. Changes cannot be made, but communication can easily point out design features and challenges. FirstSpace co- view allows engineers to simultaneously view the same component. Once again, changes cannot be made, but a discussion can occur as team members review a design all at the same time.

By graduating to OneSpace, a design engineer receives what the company suggests is a conference room for designers. In this conference room, not only can the designers review the design parameters simultaneously, but also they can exchange ideas to resolve problems in realtime. OneSpace works in a client/server environment where a CAD or PDF file is brought into a neutral environment where changes can be made. After the engineer discusses and implements the changes, he saves the file in the native format for the home system.

Visualize, a product development company, uses OneSpace exclusively on almost every project. Mike Pelland, President of Visualize says, "We typically work with two engineers through OneSpace, but we're seeing that change rapidly. Several recent projects included four engineers in the same collaborative space."

OneSpace allows the project manager to couple or un-couple attendees in the virtual space. According to Pelland, "We seldom use the uncouple mode." The company uses the telephone to communicate verbally. "Control has to be passed from one person to another. It's easy to just tell someone over the phone to stop moving and pass that control to the next engineer." In a recent project designing a printer holder for a handheld data terminal, Pelland says that, "The design went through several iterations, all performed in OneSpace."

Centric Software's PIVOTAL product family also provides users with a highly interactive 3D visual behavior synthesis environment through Stream Weaver technology-superimposing multiple data sources with data channels that are streamed-in in real time. Also scalable, PIVOTAL unites its users throughout the product cycle.

Henrik Aberg, Systems Administrator, at Volvo Cars, claims that, "We are testing the software in a collaborative situation. We've used PIVOTAL on a few small proprietary projects and find it extremely user-friendly. The software allows us to view different types of data through a standard PC without being CAD experts."

There are other vendors of such software besides those discussed in this short piece. Research the available products, apply them to your company's specific needs, and get started. Internet design collaboration is coming fast.

"E-services and the design engineer," sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, is a monthly series in Design News. Readers, share your experiences with websites that help you do your job better and faster. And OEM suppliers, keep us posted on new features on your websites at [email protected].

e-Vis.com aids collaboration

From Hewlett-Packard

e-Vis.com is a secure, Internet-enabled solution for enterprise and supplier collaboration, integration, and e-services that improves communication across the enterprise and the supply chain. It gives distributed project teams a secure workspace for sharing documents, applications, information, and decisions. e-Vis.com users can: Store, organize, and view project data from dozens of sources, including CAD, PDM, ERP, and others; receive notification when the data changes; track decisions; communicate via instant messages; and conduct virtual conferences over the Internet.

e-Vis.com puts the right information in front of the right people at the right time, helping companies strengthen partner and supplier relationships, reduce time-to-market, improve product quality, and reduce costs.

In addition to being a secure, Internet-enabled collaboration solution, e-Vis.com is also a destination site for manufacturing on the Web, providing industry news, online training, broadcasts of key industry events, and access to purchase manufacturing supplies online. Try e-Vis.com for yourself on the web at www.e-vis.com.

Cyber contacts

Here's a listing of websites for companies mentioned in this article:

Amdahl Corp.: www. amdal.com

Besser Associates: www.bessercourse.com

CADKEY Corp.: www. cadkey.com

DigitalThink Inc. www.digitalthink.com

Unitec, Inc.: www.unitec.com

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